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The Historical Ninja

By Sôke Masaaki Hatsumi


There are many theories as to the beginnings of what we know as the art of ninjutsu today.
Each Japanese historian has his or her own set of facts and beliefs, and it is difficult
pinpointing a specific place, person, time, or set of circumstances that would be acceptable
to all as the birth of the art. In all truthfulness, ninjutsu did not come into being as a specific
well-defined art in the first place, and many centuries passed before ninjutsu was
established as an independent system of knowledge in its own right. The people who were
later referred to as ninja did not originally use that label for themselves. They considered
themselves to be merely practitioners of political, religious, and military strategies that were
cultural opposites of the conventional outlooks of the times. Ninjutsu developed as a highly
illegal counter culture to the ruling samurai elite, and
for this reason alone, the origins of the art were
shrouded by centuries of mystery, concealment, and
deliberate confusion of history.

In the legends of the founding of Japan’s Imperial Family, passed on by word of mouth through
the generations before recorded history, two ninja-like characters are credited with assisting the
first emperor, Jimmu, in attaining a decisive victory. Jimmu was in combat against the troops of
Iso Castle, and the battle was going against him. One night in a dream, the future emperor had a
vision in which he was told to take the clay from Mt. Amakaga and mold it into a sacred vessel.
Mt. Amakaga was a holy mountain that lay in the middle of the territory held by the Iso forces.
Obtaining the raw clay became the symbol of Jimmu’s intention and resolve towards succeeding
in the conquest of Iso Castle. Shinetsuhiko and Otokashi served their lord Jimmu by disguising
themselves as an old peasant and his wife, and the two successfully slipped into the enemy
territory, packed the clay, and returned safely. Jimmu then molded and fired a platter and bowl
set from clay, offered them to the gods of fortune and went on to attain the victory he so strongly
believed to be his destiny. The skills of ninjutsu were said to have been passed thereafter to
Tennin Nichimei, Okume Mei, and Otomo Uji for further development and expansion.

Among the ancient ninjutsu documents that I inherited from my teacher are several scrolls that
tell of Chinese ex-patriots who fled their native land to seek sanctuary in the islands of Japan.
Chinese warriors, scholars, and monks alike made the journey to find new lives in the wilderness
of Ise and Kii south of the capitals in Nara and then Kyoto. Taoist sages like Gamon, Garyu, Kain,
and Unryu, and generals from T’ang China such as Cho Gyokko, Ikai, and Cho Busho brought
with them the knowledge that had accumulated over the
centuries in their native land. Military strategies, religious
philosophies, folklore, cultural concepts, medical
practices, and a generally wide scope of perspective that
blended the wisdom of China with that of India, Tibet,
Eastern Europe, and south-east Asia were their gifts to
their newly-found followers in Japan. Remote and far
flung from the Emperor’s court in the capital, the cultural
ancestors of the ninja lived their lives as naturalists and
mystics, while the main-stream of society became
increasingly structured, ranked, stylised, and eventually
tightly controlled.

As the passage of time continued to unfold the fabric of Japan’s history, the ninja and their ways
of accomplishment, known as Ninjutsu, were always present behind the scenes of all the eras to
ensure the survival and independence of their families and lands. In the regions of Iga and Koga,
Ninjutsu became a special skill, refined and perfected by over seventy families, each with their
own unique methods, motivations, and ideals.

Japanese history books, however, are curiously limited in their coverage and acknowledgment
of the shadowy figures known as ninja. In textbooks even as recent as one generation ago,
Hanzo Hattori, the head of one of the most influential ninja families in Iga and Shogun Ieyasu
Tokugawa’s director of ninja, was referred to as "a bushi (samurai) from the remote province of
Iga". This hesitancy to openly acknowledge the ninja’s role in the forging of modern Japan
stems perhaps from the glorification of the samurai concept and ethic that became very popular
after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The Meiji Restoration abolished the samurai class and gave
all citizens the right to affect social trappings that had once been reserved for samurai only.

With this clouding of significant historical events and people, it is difficult for today’s Japanese
people to understand the true purpose and ideals of the ninja. Exaggerated legends left over
from the Tokugawa era, in which the Shogun’s ninja secret police were given supernatural
powers such as the ability to disappear, walk across water, and read minds , confuse the story
even more. As the world became more and more interested in the culture and then the martial
arts of Japan, the distorted stories of the ninja found new audiences in the Western world over
the past three decades.
It is easy to at least discuss being in control of
one’s body, and it has become quite fashionable
in the West to discuss personal responsibility in
the control of one’s mind and emotions, but
being in control of one’s perception of right and
wrong, or what is appropriate, is a more difficult
matter. To be in control of one’s perception of
appropriateness is to be able to rely on one’s
"sixth sense" and to have a working knowledge
of one’s sub-conscious level of thinking. This
broader perception of reality being based on
one’s own unique viewpoint is what set the ninja
apart from the conventional military tacticians
during the warring states and feudal eras of
Japan.